By Erika Webb
Firefighters and Volusia County Sheriff's Office investigators continued excavation of an old Glenwood well June 19 -- searching for clues in a nearly 40-year old unsolved homicide case.
James Aslinger's body was found outside a home on Benson Junction Road in DeBary in 1974. He was 30 years old.
A tip spurred by VCSO's Facebook page led investigators to the well on a dirt road off of Grand Avenue. At one time, the property was occupied by family members of Mr. Aslinger's wife, who is now also deceased.
Two other searches at the site -- in late April and early May -- yielded some pieces of rusted metal, but not the answers sought.
Investigators aren't saying exactly what they hope to find there.
As firefighter Chris Davis was lowered into the well, humidity and anticipation hung in the air.
When the first bag of dirt and debris was lifted out, crime scene investigator Richard Graves immediately began to examine the contents.
Cold case squad investigator William "Don" Maxwell said crews resumed digging at about 22 feet and dug another 10 feet until they hit a void.
"Once we penetrate that void we'll go about 10 more feet and then stop," Mr. Maxwell said.
That will take place sometime in August, he added.
Among the items pulled from the well -- old bottles, chairs, Christmas lights and other discarded household items -- investigators may have recovered some pieces of the puzzle.
"We think it's very possible. We're going to have to have them examined by an expert," Mr. Maxwell said.
For some the door to the past is not sealed shut with retirement.
Ralph Henshaw pursued activities associated with his lifelong passion for cars and trucks. He and his family built a successful retail business. He traveled. He has many interests and he indulged them all after leaving the Volusia County Sheriff's Office in 1978.
But he was being followed.
His pursuers were the silent victims of unsolved homicides, along with those who'd gone missing -- vanished without a trace, as they say. There also were the families of these people, still trying to come to grips with the unthinkable, their lives forever changed.
"Have you ever been to somebody's house where their child's been murdered?" Mr. Henshaw said. "They're in anguish. You want to help them."
The cold case squad consists of fulltime homicide investigator, Chuck Lee, and two former VCSO deputies, Mr. Henshaw and Mr. Maxwell.
Mr. Maxwell volunteered to work the cold cases in 2011 after leaving his position as a safety engineer when the space shuttle program ended. Last September, Mr. Henshaw got a call from Sheriff Ben Johnson, asking him to join the effort.
"Ben and I have been friends for many years," Mr. Henshaw said. "Don suggested to Ben I come help him, so Ben called me and asked if I wanted to help. I said 'sure.'"
A lot has changed since 1978. Mr. Henshaw is grateful to those who have helped him navigate the computer system. Gone are the days when everything was scribbled on a notepad.
"As old as I am, they're even giving me some training," he said.
The office is busier with more active cases and many more deputies on patrol. Back in the early 1970s there were two; Mr. Henshaw patrolled the west side of the county, Mr. Maxwell the east.
But the men feel right at home.
The department, under Sheriff Johnson, is more cohesive than he's ever seen it -- "a true team," Mr. Henshaw said.
"The work that's done by Don and I, that's only part of the work that's being done," he added. "The other guys, they work hard at this."
Listening to old interview tapes and talking with victims' friends and family members, anyone originally associated with the case, occupies the bulk of Mr. Henshaw's time. It's painstaking work, but he is confident the recollection of a minute detail, a certain revealing inflection in the taped voice -- or any number of other clues in old files or new conversations could put a murderer away -- and minds a little more at ease.
"Eric Walker, someone killed him, but why?" he said of the Seminole County School District security guard whose body was found in his vehicle on Enterprise-Osteen Road March 11, 2004. "His mother's a sweet person. You go down and talk to them and you really want to find out who 'dun' this, for the families."
Mr. Henshaw and Mr. Maxwell brainstorm. They trade impressions and deductions.
"I call retired investigators and I pick their brain about what they remember about the case," Mr. Henshaw said. "I've gone to a couple and said, 'I've got all your notes from '75 or '72 ... maybe you can help me decipher.'"
He said they're always willing to help.
He holds out hope that time will work on those who chose to remain silent.
"Going back, talking to people ... you'll find some more willing to talk than when they were teenagers," Mr. Henshaw said. "Now they're older and more responsible. They have children of their own."
Numerous times throughout the conversation, Mr. Henshaw returned to the newspaper on the table which contained details of each of the 38 unsolved murder and 26 missing person cases. Repeatedly he'd pick it up and utter a victim's name and circumstances.
Angela Ramsey, a 16 year-old girl from South Carolina who disappeared in 1977.
"She disappeared from the Boulevard Motel in DeLand. Nobody has any idea where she went, who took her. We've been looking ever since," Mr. Henshaw said.
Laralee Spear, the 15-year old girl whose body was discovered just hours after she got off the school bus in DeLand on a spring afternoon in 1994.
Carol Lynn Sullivan, 12 years old and new to the Osteen area when she disappeared from her bus stop in 1978. Her partial remains were found in a remote area near Deltona nearly two weeks after her disappearance.
"A young person like that...they weren't involved in drug trafficking; they weren't party girls. They were just young school kids and for someone to murder them like that ... it just really bothers you, and not just them, every one of these has something," he said.
The unidentified haunt him too.
John Doe No. 1, found May 3, 1972, near a pond off Indian Lake Road.
"I get on the Doe Network and keep looking to see if I can find someone that meets his description, someone that disappeared in that time period," Mr. Henshaw said. "His teeth were good, clothes were good. You'd think someone in his family would have reported him missing. If I could find out who he was, it would really help. I could go back and find someone who knew him."
In the past investigators were randomly assigned cold cases to re-work as their schedules permitted, but when new cases came in, the cold cases would have to be set aside, Sheriff's Office spokesman Gary Davidson explained in an emailed response to questions.
"We simply didn't have the time or resources to dedicate a full-time effort toward working the cold cases. Unless new leads or information came in, we simply worked them when we could. That changed when we established the cold case squad and assigned Investigator Lee to the unit," Mr. Davidson wrote. "He's an extremely dedicated and determined investigator and has proven to be well-suited to this assignment."
Mr. Davidson called Mr. Henshaw and Mr. Maxwell "Godsends" who bring a great deal of wisdom and institutional knowledge to the effort.
"The dedication and contribution of our two volunteers can't be overstated," Mr. Davidson noted.
Their biggest contribution is in organizing and reviewing the case files, which frees up investigators to follow up on any new leads that are developed. With their help, our cold case homicides are now being worked on a daily basis, he explained.
Mr. Maxwell said the first order of business was organizing the old files.
"The vault was in bad shape, so many people with their hands in there trying to do work," Mr. Maxwell said. "It took about five months to organize."
He organized them in chronological order beginning with a case he remembers hearing about when he was 17 -- Daytona Beach couple Harold and Bonnie Butler, killed in 1957.
"Now that the squad is up and running, it has already completed a preliminary review of eight unsolved homicides using a complex factor table that helps us to determine which cases have the best opportunity for solvability," Mr. Davidson wrote. "To date, follow-up investigations have begun on four of those cases."
Mr. Maxwell and Mr. Henshaw said extensive media coverage of their endeavors has prompted new tips.
"The media reports have (resulted in) letters containing information being turned over to us," Mr. Maxwell said.
"I'm confident that it's only a matter of time before their efforts result in the successful closure of a case," Mr. Davidson wrote. "Hopefully, this gives the victims' families some comfort knowing that their cases haven't been forgotten and we are continuing our efforts to seek justice for them."
For details pertaining to these cases visit the Volusia County Sheriff's Office's Facebook page.